Steve McCurry at the Rubin Museum: High on Beauty Low on Original Perspective

By Ozana Plemenitash - Monday, February 15, 2016
Steve McCurry at the Rubin Museum: High on Beauty Low on Original Perspective

Occupying the 5th floor of the Rubin Museum “Steve McCurry: India” covers a broad expanse of time, 1982-2014, during the American photojournalist’s frequent trips to India. The exhibition brings together a diverse portrayal of the country displaying portraits of its people, monuments, landscapes, seasons, and urban and rural life. Created through collaboration the exhibition was co-organized by the Rubin Museum and the International Center of Photography and curated by Lia Zaaloff and Christopher Phillips.

Steve McCurry at the Rubin Museum: High on Beauty Low on Original Perspective

Occupying the 5th floor of the Rubin Museum “Steve McCurry: India” covers a broad expanse of time, 1982-2014, during the American photojournalist’s frequent trips to India. The exhibition brings together a diverse portrayal of the country displaying portraits of its people, monuments, landscapes, seasons, and urban and rural life. Created through collaboration the exhibition was co-organized by the Rubin Museum and the International Center of Photography and curated by Lia Zaaloff and Christopher Phillips.

McCurry is best known for his image “Afghan Girl” (1984), which appeared in National Geographic in June 1985. McCurry had been sent to document the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan (1979-1989) and found the young Pashtun girl Sharbat Gula in Nasir Bagh, an Afghan refugee camp on the edge of Peshawar, Pakistan. Since its publication the image has become the magazine’s most recognized cover in its history. Not only is the iconic portrait internationally renown but it is emblematic of the chaos and turmoil in the Middle East and dually serves as a symbol of the international amnesty movement. National Geographic remarks on the power of the image—“[her eyes] are haunted and haunting, and in them you can read the tragedy of a land drained by war.” His coverage of the conflict launched his career and won him the Robert Capa Gold Medal in 1980 for Best Photographic Reporting from Abroad. 

Deeply invested in his craft and matched with an irrefutable passion for storytelling, McCurry has traveled the world capturing what he calls “unguarded moments” of everyday life. He has been observing and documenting the different places and cultures he encounters since his first trip to India in 1978. South Asia has proved to be greatly inspirational to his photographic practice due to the rich diversity of its regions where “the light and ancient beliefs [are] inexhaustible.” His experiences in India moved the photographer to transition from working exclusively in black and white to color—for which he is most recognizable for today. 

“My life is shaped by the urgent need to wander and observe, and my camera is my passport.” – Amateur Photographer Magazine

Rabari tribal elder, Rajasthan Steve McCurry [origin]; 2010 (Printed: New York; 2015) Archival Pigment Print Display size: 40 x 60 inches © Steve McCurry. Steve McCurry: India, Rubin Museum of Art & ICP 

The images on display at the Rubin Museum are of a large-scale format dominating the galleries walls. McCurry’s signature vibrant colors are seen throughout the entire show offering a striking contrast against the deep dark blue walls that further illuminating the space. Upon entering the first gallery we are confronted with a wide portrait of a Rabari Tribal Elder with orange-white toned hair and beard. He regards us with an intensely unflinching expression on his aged face. The images within this gallery offer insight into the religious multiplicity found in India—ranging from Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Islam, and Sikhism. While some display explicit participation within religious activities others offer subdued glimpses of the importance of spirituality within everyday life.

Perhaps the most alluring images within this first gallery are those saturated in color. Further down the wall there is a scene depicting Holi, the Festival of Colors. This aerial shot shows a crowd of men covered in red powder holding above their heads the elongated figure of a bare-chested smiling man covered from head to toe in green powder. The palette here is exquisite, the green man almost jumping out of a sea of red turbans and tiles. McCurry’s masterful composition offers an attractive visual spectacle that simultaneously captures the jovial celebration.

Father and daughter on Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir Steve McCurry [origin]; 1996 (Printed: New York; 2015) Digital c-print Display size: 40 x 60 inches © Steve McCurry. Steve McCurry: India, Rubin Museum of Art & ICP 

Apart from the endless beauty found within India’s landscapes, the portraits of its people are even more captivating. McCurry excels at capturing individuals with the utmost diligence and creates compositions where groups dominate. The expressions he captures are never dull or lifeless but exude the experience of every individual’s complex journey on earth.  People smile heartily or inquisitively stare, challenging his camera and our view.  These photographs tell a narrative—a fundamental element that McCurry strives for in every shot. Every image must tell a story and portray the character of the subject. This incessant search for the essence sets these photographs apart from the others as they truly speak out to us. 

“Most of my images are grounded in people. I look for the unguarded moment, the essential soul peeking out, experience etched on a person’s face.” - Amateur Photographer Magazine, 2010

Further within the exhibition we see selections from other series he has worked on including “India by Rail” and “Monsoon.” Again, McCurry is depicting the diversity of India as a country not only from city to city but also regionally, through natural elements. The “Monsoon” series is particularly captivating as it shows streets covered in water where people wade chest deep carrying possessions above their heads or foreboding atmospheres anticipating the impending storm. The monsoon is a seasonal pattern that synonymous with life, disruption, passion, and celebration. “Dust Storm” (1983) is an image from this series depicting a tight cluster of women facing inward towards each other in Rajasthan. Blown up to very large dimensions the women are in the center of the composition with two ceramic vases in the foreground and skeletal trees receding into the background. This image immediately demands our attention as the women’s bright red saris stand out against the predominantly tan landscape. McCurry brilliantly captures this moment, the storm picking up dust and causing the rich fabrics to dance among the wind. He describes the scene as “life and death [hanging] in precarious balance.”

Dust storm, Rajasthan Steve McCurry [origin]; 1983 (Printed: New York; 2015) Archival Pigment Print Display size: 40 x 26.66 inches © Steve McCurry. Steve McCurry: India, Rubin Museum of Art & ICP 

While this exhibition certainly exudes beauty and seeks to illuminate India as a country, I cannot help but think of the context within which McCurry is shooting. He is a white western male working within regions and cultural spheres very different from his own, therefore inherently forming an outsider perception. He has traveled the world and brought “otherness” back to the west—mainly Europe and the US, where his gallery and institutional representation is located.

While it is nothing new that the foreigner is curious of that which is unknown to him and inherently different, I could not shake the sense that McCurry was gawking at everything around him. Moving through these galleries many of the photographs seem exaggerated and overtly dramatic with a mystical tinge. The urban and landscape shots are idealized in a way that only a foreigner would see them. The people he photographs seem to regard him with an almost defensive glare, as if they are about to say, “who are you and why are you taking my picture?” The photographs’ dramatic blown-up format and intense color saturation only increase this effect of spectacle. We are impressed by the richness of these images, but only as removed westerners in awe of this beautiful otherness with which most of us cannot identify with.

Many, but not all, of these portraits depict a narrative of survival and endurance against great odds or the charms of a “simpler” lifestyle. While there is without a doubt an honest and genuine interest in India on the part of McCurry, it is evident that this exhibition was made with a western audience in mind. He does not present us with an original perception but one that publications such as National Geographic have continuously fed us of all non-western cultures—an image of exotic and mystical beauty.

The Rubin is a museum whose mission it is to educate its visitors on the arts, culture, and history of the Himalayas, India, and neighboring regions while drawing connections to contemporary life. This exhibit does as great a job educating us on India as it does of perpetuating the cultural gap between them and us. 

“Steve McCurry: India” is on view until April 4th, 2016. 

Ozana Plemenitash is senior at New York University studying Art History and French. Striving to share her enthusiasm for the arts with the student population, she is the co-president of NYU’s Fine Arts Society. In 2013, she helped co-curate an exhibition at Ursinus College entitled A to Z: Highlighting the Berman Collection. She has held numerous internships within the arts, including positions at the International Center of Photography and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. In the summer of 2015, she began dabbling in freelance journalism by writing for the online platform Art Versed. She currently works at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery.

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Museo Jumex (a private art collection based in Mexico City, Mexico) / David Chipperfield. Image © Simon Menges

Museo Jumex (a private art collection based in Mexico City, Mexico) / David Chipperfield. Image © Simon Menges

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